It’s a hot sunny day in late July and we’re jumping in our trusty Fiat 500L for a short drive up the coast to the jaw-droppingly beautiful Cinque Terre. This will be one of five stops on our Italian Origins small-group journey, so we’re on our way to meet with hotel and activity partners in person. Over the years, we’ve gleaned two bits of wisdom - 1) reliable contacts that we know and trust are gold, and 2) the best way to ensure every travel detail is amazing is to experience it first-hand. We cross the green hills surrounding Lucca and head north, past Carrara and its mountains of glistening white marble, and into the terraced hillsides of Cinque Terre National Park.
Summer in Lucca came right on time. As if a switch were flipped, the solstice happened and one day later the sun showed up in full force, blasting down 87-degree days one after another. It’s beautiful in this part of Italy at this time of year, while the greenery, wildflowers, and other remnants of spring are still on display and the summer nights seem to last forever. Italy has successfully (so far, at least) emerged from one of the world’s strictest lockdowns and la bella vita once again surrounds us. Masks are commonplace (mandatory when in close proximity to other people), Italians are the least touchy they’ll probably ever be, and there is enough hand sanitizer to give every one of the world’s germaphobes a lifetime supply, but life is otherwise pretty normal. The country as a whole followed a long, closely monitored quarantine with a quite uniform reopening strategy and the numbers continue to look good. There are currently less than 14,000 total cases in Italy, with only 69 considered critical, and fewer than 200 new cases per day.
Watch where you step. Look both ways. And under no circumstances whatsoever, wander aimlessly into the bike path. If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll collide with a very fast, basket laden bicycle. Or, at a minimum, you’ll have a tall, beautiful, and perfectly multi-lingual Dutchman or woman ring a loud bell and politely shout to get the ‘f’ out of the way. Cycling is a cornerstone of the culture in Amsterdam - just as much as canals, museums and coffee shops - and thousands of bikes cruise around the city during every season and at every hour of the day. It’s just one of the things that makes this gorgeous, creative, liberal, historical, free-thinking city unlike anywhere else in the world.
No where else in Spain is the influence of the country’s diverse history and converging cultures so apparent than in Andalucia. It’s a region many think of as traditionally Spanish, from Flamenco to bullfights, tapas to a vibrant late night culture. Around every corner, the combination of Moorish architecture with traditional Spanish buildings and plazas creates a unique sense of place. When you’re in Andalucia, you know it.
Located in the southern part of the peninsula, Andalucia is the most populous autonomous community in Spain. The name, Andalucia, is derived from the Arabic word Al-Andalus and dates back to 716, just after the Moors took over Spain by defeating the Visigoths. Historically an agricultural region, it’s home to some of the best olive oil in the world. It’s also the hottest region in Europe, with average summertime highs of 97 °F in Sevilla and Cordoba. No wonder Andalucians are known for their siestas.
We come here in the summer, so as we mention, it’s hot. Near the Portuguese border and just north of the Golfo de Cadiz, Sevilla is an elegant city that feels like an amalgamation of Spanish stereotypes. We arrive in the late afternoon, check in to our apartment in the Triana neighborhood along the west bank of the Guadalquivir River, and quickly get ready for a small-group Flamenco, food, and wine tour.
The Scottish Rail rolls east, passing flocks of fluffy white sheep. We throw out guesses of how many we’ve passed (500? 1,000?) - an unwinnable game. Somehow, the passing hills are illuminated by the muted grey sky, creating an Emerald city-like green glow. We take a sip of whisky (that’s whisky, not whiskey, and certainly not scotch) from a test-tube size dram, both because it’s weirdly cold outside for being spring and because that’s what you do here. Scotland is all about feeling cozy and, even when the rest of the world is wearing shorts, we’re 100% here for it.
The hills and mountains surrounding the valley have suddenly turned a brighter and deeper shade of green. The sky has also shifted, from muted greys with subtle blue hues, to a spectacular baby blue scattered with pillows of bright white clouds. The green fields are now strewn with the reds and yellows of wildflowers that have shot up from the fertile ground below. Spring came with a force in Lucca, our home of just six months, and after two months in quarantine we’re reminded of the multitude of reasons we chose to settle down in this little city in the northwest corner of Tuscany.
In the hour before sunset, the rice fields are magic. The golden light bounces off each long blade of grass, creating the illusion of soft waves in an emerald green ocean. Dragonflies swoop dramatically as farmers tilt their nón lá (leaf hats) off their head, no longer needing the shelter from the sun. Just five minutes away, the delightful chaos of Vietnamese motorbikes weave through ancient streets past vine-covered yellow buildings. The traditional market, alive with towering piles of fresh herbs, baskets of live crabs, bricks of white tofu and mounds of fresh noodles, flanks the side of the Thu Bồn River. It’s not difficult to fall in love here.
The colorful, tiled buildings of Porto’s Ribeira neighborhood stand at attention, greeting the mighty Douro River as it passes through the city on it’s way east to the Atlantic. Ribeira’s cobblestone streets are packed with restaurants, small bars, and traditional shops, but it’s the Dom Luis I Bridge that crests high above the Douro and steals the show.
It was early February. We were sitting in a bar in Hoi An, Vietnam, sipping a bloody mary, watching the superbowl without a care in the world, other than the 49ers defense. It was mid-way through our five week trip through Southeast Asia, where we were meeting activity partners and visiting boutique hotels to include in our Custom and Designed Trips. We were gearing up for a very busy 2020 - travel felt accessible and adventure was calling.
Every family has different holiday traditions. For us, the first week of January is a time to sit down, bust out the 2020 calendar, and embark on one of our all-time favorite activities… planning (our!) travel for the year ahead. Ever since we left our jobs and started this semi-unconventional, experience-focused life five (!) years ago, this has become our ritual - remembering trips from last year, dreaming up adventures for the year to come, and figuring out how to transform our travel dreams into a reality.
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